Japanese PM Shinzo Abe Struggles with Cronyism Case and Charges of Cover-Up

Japan's PM Shinzo Abe
Pool/AFP Etienne Oliveau

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is facing charges of corruption and a cover-up, including doctored official documents, that could imperil his re-election prospects and throw Japanese government into turmoil at a crucial moment in the North Korean nuclear crisis.

The controversy began two years ago with the sale of land to Moritomo Gakuen, a chain of private elementary schools with a conservative and nationalist curriculum. The schools are described by Japan Times as an antidote to what its founders saw as the “self-denigrating, incorrect view of Japan’s 20th-century history” and “watered-down presentation of traditional Japanese culture.”

“Moritomo’s curriculum is designed to instill patriotism in its pupils, who are required to bow before portraits of members of the imperial family and go on field trips to military bases,” the UK Guardian elaborates. “They sing the national anthem every morning and memorise the 1890 imperial rescript on education, which demands loyalty to the emperor and sacrifice for one’s country. The US occupation authorities banned the rescript, believing it had fuelled prewar militarism.”

The controversy has little to do with what Moritomo planned to teach at the school, although there was a bit of trouble when one of their kindergarten academies sent a newsletter to parents that allegedly included derogatory language about Chinese and Koreans.

The problem is that Moritomo wanted to build a new school near Osaka, where real estate is extremely expensive. Moritomo was able to buy the land the company needed for a gigantic discount, which local officials justified by saying the property required extensive clean-up costs. Moritomo wound up paying about 14 cents on the dollar for the land and claimed half a million dollars’ worth of state subsidies to boot.

Accusations were made that Moritomo got a sweetheart deal on the Osaka land by abusing the political connections of former operator Yasunori Kagoike and his wife Junko, in particular, their ties to Finance Minister Taro Aso and Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mrs. Abe was to serve as honorary principal of the new school, which at one point was going to be named after Shinzo Abe but ended up being called Mizuho no Kuni (“Land of Plentiful Rice”) Elementary School.

None of this sat well with the public, especially as Kagoike was slapped with criminal charges for swindling Osaka out of hefty subsidies for another school earlier in the decade, and suspicions were raised that Moritomo Gakuen padded the cost estimates for its new school to increase its subsidy demands. “Padded” in this case means roughly doubled. When this revelation was made, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui blocked the opening of the new school pending a full review. Kagoike responded by accusing the governor of waging a personal vendetta against him.

The situation went from uncomfortable charges of cronyism to a full-blown national scandal when Japanese media discovered that Ministry of Finance documents related to the case had been doctored to remove potentially embarrassing information about Mrs. Abe visiting the Moritomo Gakuen school and also about Abe and Taro’s ties to a conservative lobbying group called Nippon Kaigi.

Aso admitted on Monday is that the documents were altered to make them conform to testimony given by another government official, National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa. As Reuters observes, the information deleted from the documents did not consist of world-shaking secrets that would destroy Abe if they became public, and in fact, his ties to Nippon Kaigi are well-known.

Instead, the paperwork appears to have been altered to make Sagawa’s testimony to an intense session of the Japanese Diet appear accurate. Among other things, Sagawa told lawmakers that some of these documents had been discarded. The names of several lawmakers originally referenced in the document were removed.

“It was also reported earlier this month that a key document detailing the sales contract might have been rewritten, apparently after the controversy had surfaced in February last year,” adds Nikkei Asian Review. “The discrepancies between the earlier and later versions suggest that the document was altered to erase any evidence that the government negotiated the price with Moritomo Gakuen ahead of contract signing, the report alleged. Sagawa came under fire for his answers to lawmakers regarding the issue.”

The scandal has grown rapidly to consume Shinzo Abe’s entire administration, with each new plot twist and discovery seemingly worse than the last. More than one observer has invoked the Western political chestnut about “the cover-up being worse than the crime.”

It even appears to have a body count, as an employee of the Finance Ministry who worked in the property sales department was found dead on Friday. His division handled the sale of the property to Moritomo Gakuen. He reportedly left a suicide note, but its contents have not been disclosed to the public.

Sagawa resigned his position last week, prompting Finance Minister Aso to spend an hour at a press conference explaining the resignation and apologizing for his ministry’s role in the scandal. This, in turn, left Aso under fire for defending Sagawa for so long. The political opposition sneered that Sagawa resigning was comparable to “a lizard losing its tail” to escape from predators.

Political observers are now entertaining the possibility that Abe’s entire government could come down. Akie Abe is struggling to deny stories that she donated a sizable amount of money to the Moritomo Gakuen school. School operator Kagoike is threatening to name names and bring some high-ranking politicians down with him.

Hundreds of angry protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s headquarters on Monday to demand the resignation of not only Finance Minister Taro Aso, who is also the deputy prime minister, but also Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself.

“People who seem incapable of complying with the law are in there,” one protester told the Japan Times, indicating not Shinzo Abe’s office but the Diet building. Another mentioned the suicide of the Finance Ministry official and said it was becoming hard “even for those usually apathetic toward politics to stay silent.” 

“The whole Moritomo scandal began with the idea of politicians using their own influence to ‘privatize’ the administrative process. For the whole year, they went on without giving a sufficient explanation and now it turns out the Finance Ministry falsified the official documents … This nation is so over,” a third demonstrator sighed.

“It could shake confidence in the administration as a whole. I strongly feel responsibility as the head of administration. I apologize to all of the people,” Prime Minister Abe himself said of the situation on Monday.

Japan Times quotes analyst Tobias Harris of Teneo Intelligence judging that Shinzo Abe is likely to survive the scandal and win his re-election bid.

However, Harris judged that “the re-emergence of an old scandal, a risky constitutional revision debate looming, and potential contenders laying the groundwork for challenging Abe make it possible that he could face a tougher re-election fight than anticipated.”

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